[Solitaire Recordings; 2020]

Little Kid’s Transfiguration Highway opens with a sharp melodic blast of harmonica and some lilting piano, and immediately the lineage between the Toronto-based band and Canadian forebear Neil Young comes resounding out. It’s a sound that immediately puts you at ease; you feel as though you can settle into the classic tones, make yourself comfortable, and get ready for some folky storytelling – which Kenny Boothby, the band’s leader, certainly delivers.

Little Kid are far from a new band, as Boothby has been putting out music under the moniker for a decade, but Transfiguration Highway is their first for a label (Brooklyn’s Solitaire Recordings), and features a more filled-out lineup and higher production values, which allow his imagination to really shine. Long-time fans of Little Kid won’t be disappointed either, as the songs on Transfiguration Highway still have that intimate, homespun charm – they’re just a little more sturdy, is all.

The opening song is called “I Thought That You’d Been Raptured”, and the story held within makes good on its excellent title: Boothby describes a factory worker coming home to discover his partner’s “favorite floral pattern gown just lying in the doorway,” and, being a Christian man, he believes she’s been raptured – only to follow the trail of clothing to the bedroom where she’s mid-coitus with another man. “I Thought That You’d Been Raptured” is an excellent opening track as it balances all the things that proceed on Transfiguration Highway: tales of humanity, religion, regret, and nostalgia told with great empathy and an undercurrent of sardonic humour.

Boothby’s lyrics are full of spiritual awe and subtle imagery and are relayed with a generous spirit that allows the listener into the stories. The poignant and twirling tableau of “All Night (Golden Ring)” finds Boothby and bandmate Megan Lunn dueting as they take up the roles of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and dives into the singers’ reunion to record a comeback album, years after the dissolution of their abusive relationship; their inner conflict and demons coming to life within Little Kid’s golden songwriting.

The jaunty bar-room stomp of “Losing” has a couple of tales, the first about a man blowing his savings at the dog track and the second about another man filled with regret at having missed the opportunity to reconnect with someone he still loves. It’s on songs like these that the link between Little Kid and the folk-rock greats of yore is particularly strong, as it’s a great tradition to tell tales of down-on-their-luck people, and Boothby and the band have the ability to make the listener really care about each of their individual woes.

This is also true on the more autobiographical songs. “Transfiguration Highway” takes us into the drive from Boothby’s hometown of Petrolia to the big city of Toronto and the changes that occur when traversing that route, with simple threads of folk underscored by a gentle whirr of synth, like the engine of the car purring beneath his reflections on the mental and physical journey back in time. Less downcast but just as pointed is “Thief on the Cross”, where Boothby describes the awkwardness between bands who have been successful where others haven’t; “I played in that old three-piece / we opened for thee, oh way back in 2015,” he sings, while the band crunches and plucks, like the grinding of the gears inside his head.

Christian imagery and ideas crop up throughout Transfiguration Highway, but it’s far from a religious album. Instead, Boothby uses these to emphasise the normalness and smallness of his characters; they’re just going about their daily lives, in constant states of doubt and looking for love or something to give their life meaning. This yields several arresting moments, like the delicate thrum of “Made For Each Other” or the unsettling sexual encounter on “Close Enough To Kill”, and ultimately guides us to the closing “Pry”.

On “Pry”, Little Kid set out a slowly crawling beauty, as Boothby cautiously opens himself to a higher power: “Down highways of violet, that angel waits / A garden unguarded beyond the gate / I’ll pry it open.” As he repeats this final commitment, Little Kid’s instrumentation hovers and then fades into a simple piano twinkle, and it feels as though we’re being gently lifted into a blinding light – raptured, after all.